Don Brind on Friday
The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell likes to get away from politics by sailing his little Skipper 17 trailer sailer on the Norfolk Broads, he told the Eastern Daily Press. McDonnell was brought up in Great Yarmouth where the three Broads rivers enter the sea. Like all lovers of Broads sailing he will know that the worst part of the experience has been getting there. Bottlenecks in the A11 have long been a nightmare.
The then Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis took the train to Norwich in 2010 with a solution. A re-elected Labour government he promised was “committed to completing the dualling of the A11 with construction beginning this year.” He had a real passion for his brief and as Labour press officer in the General Election I found it an easy sell. It went down well with the EDP and the rest of the regional media. It couldn’t, however, prevent a string of Labour losses in Norfolk and Suffolk and Adonis next turns up as one of the negotiators with Nick Clegg seeking to create a Labour Lib Dem coalition. His Five Days in May is a definitive account of Labour’s unsuccessful quest to hold on to power.
So, he never got the chance to make good on his announcement. The Coalition government eventually picked up the scheme and announced its completion in 2014.
Adonis was an influential figure under Ed Miliband who spotted that the Coalition were pretty rubbish at infrastructure planning. In 2012 the Labour leader set up an independent review under Sir John Amrit and followed this up by putting Adonis in charge of a growth commission which reported in July 2014. The aim of Miliband’s policy was to build a political consensus for pushing ahead with big infrastructure policies. That policy has been vindicated Chancellor George Osborne’s appointment of Adonis.
The smart response from Labour is to welcome it but to question whether Osborne can deliver given his approach to austerity. The appointment gives McDonnell a platform to argue for his growth strategy for cutting the deficit.
Steve Richards underlines the gap between Osborne’s ambition and his budget plans. “It does not cost very much money to hire Lord Adonis to run an Infrastructure Commission, but it is very expensive to build infrastructure. Osborne does not want to borrow for capital spending even though he could raise the money at bargain interest rates.” The fact is that McDonnell and Labour’s willingness to borrow to fund infrastructure would give Adonis a better chance of success.
Anyone in the Labour Party who is not concerned about the ambition to extend the Tory appeal revealed by Osborne and the David Cameron in Manchester is being absurdly complacent.
But they are only ambitions.
Their rhetoric clashes at many points with the reality of what the Government is doing. Take, for instance, the critique of Osborne’s Northern powerhouse, by Jim McMahon the Leader of Oldham Council “Getting local areas to deliver the Work Programme for instance isn’t devolution, it’s just recommissioning. Taking over £78m from stamp duty income in Greater Manchester and giving back just £30m to boost housing development isn’t really devolution either.”
There is plenty of scope for Labour front bench teams at Westminster to produce similar forensic work on other Tory government policies. Cameron and Osborne have locked themselves into their cuts to family tax credits offering Labour the opportunity for a board-based national campaign which will have at least tacit support from the Mail and the Sun.
Similarly, the forced sale of social housing is likely to be an embarrassment to Zac Goldsmith in the London Mayoral campaign.
The Cameron and Osborne speeches made me think they had been reading Lord Ashcroft. No. Not that book.
With a month to go to the General Election, the estranged Tory peer reported on one of his series of focus groups. The key finding was that the parties were reinforcing the views that voters held of them. “They cannot change in four weeks what they have been unable or unwilling to change in five years.” His point was that both Tory and Labour need to broaden their appeal. Cameron and Osborne showed this week that they get it. The majority of Labour MPs on the front and back benches also get it.
What they would dearly love to hear, when he’s back from his well-earned holiday and the euphoria of his landslide victory abates, is that their leader gets it too.